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Seattle Sounders’ Club World Cup exit shows where MLS is on the global stage

Much was made of the Seattle Sounders’ participation in this year’s Club World Cup. Having become the first Major League Soccer team to win the CONCACAF Champions League in 2022, Brian Schmetzer’s outfit became the league’s first side to compete in the competition. However, the Sounders’ stay at the Club World Cup was a short one.

Indeed, Seattle were sent home after just one match with Mohamed Afsha’s 88th winner giving Al Ahly of Egypt a 1-0 victory to send them through to the Club World Cup semi-finals. The sense of anticlimax was unavoidable as the Sounders were made to rue not making more of their opportunity at the tournament.

“I thought we were good. I thought we were evenly matched. A couple of chances. But the deflection on the goal, it’s unfortunate,” said Schmetzer after the match, praising his Seattle players for their performance even in defeat. “They put everything into the game. They put everything into pre-season.”

It would be excessive to place too much meaning on one underwhelming performance by the Seattle Sounders when they haven’t played a competitive match for months, but the result was a reminder of how far MLS still has to go to gain credibility on the global stage. MLS teams are still out of their depth against the best in world soccer.

This isn’t to say MLS clubs aren’t capable of holding their own against continental rivals. Seattle’s success in the CONCACAF Champions League last year highlighted the progress made by American and Canadian teams against Liga MX sides who have traditionally dominated the competition.

Seattle were given a reality check in their defeat to Al Ahly, but they will be better for their experience going forward. MLS teams as a whole should be better for their experience – they now have a benchmark to measure themselves against. The precedent has finally been set for MLS clubs at the Club World Cup.

There is a growing sense that MLS is reaching a crossroads in terms of the freedom it provides clubs to build teams. Trade rules have been simplified over the off-season while discussion over an increased salary cap continues to gather pace. Some of the richer owners who have entered the league in recent years want more freedom to spend money on players. Pressure is building for the rules to be loosened somewhat.

It’s understandable that MLS wanted to ensure the financial viability of the league in the early phases of its development, but clubs are now competing with one arm tied behind their back and the Sounders’ early exit at the Club World Cup served a reminder of this. There’s only so much MLS clubs can achieve under the current restrictions.

Of course, the Club World Cup is a competition that struggles for relevancy in the global soccer landscape. European teams consider the tournament something of an afterthought. South American teams place more importance on it, but only because they view it as an opportunity to test themselves against the biggest and richest clubs from Europe.

Gianni Infantino plans on expanding the Club World Cup to 32 teams from 2019, although it’s not clear how this will fit into the already packed schedule clubs have to contend with. In truth, there’s no real need or demand for a Club World Cup besides from FIFA who want to use the competition to gain political traction over UEFA.

Nothing that happens at the Club World Cup should bother the Seattle Sounders or any other MLS team much. There are better ways to measure the growth of the league – like in the number of active internationals playing for MLS clubs. That MLS had the most players at the 2022 World Cup of any league outside Europe’s ‘Big Five’ mattered.

It’s only natural that MLS should look to the Club World Cup as a yardstick to measure itself against other leagues from around the world, but a knockout tournament involving only a handful of teams all from different confederations is too volatile for any solid conclusions to be drawn from. Nonetheless, the sight of the Seattle Sounders heading home early was one that should have everyone associated with MLS pushing hard for better.

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